Meet the 17-year-old behind the world's most popular coronavirus tracker

Avi Schiffmann developed a Covid-19 tracker from his room on his Macbook after the first cases emerged from Wuhan

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The 17-year-old's coronavirus tracker now has more than 250m hits
The 17-year-old's coronavirus tracker now has more than 250m hits Credit: Avi Schiffmann

He may only be 17 years old, but Avi Schiffmann has already outdone Silicon Valley's best engineers in tracking the spread of coronavirus. 

The teenager, originally from London but now living on Mercer Island near Seattle, has witnessed his hometown become deserted in recent weeks.

"It's pretty apocalyptic,” says an animated Schiffmann. “The entire state is closed basically...Driving on the highway of Seattle, usually it's terrible, but now it's like I'm driving in the middle of the night."

Schiffmann was paying close attention to the spread of Covid-19 long before the lockdown of his city.

As soon as he heard about the first cases emerging from Wuhan, he began to get to work to create the world’s first online Covid-19 tracker. The website, which has registered more than 250m hits, tracks the number of cases of coronavirus globally in real-time.

“If you wanted the most up-to-date information you'd have to read like Chinese government websites,” he says. “I thought it would be kinda cool to make something that updated way faster, looked visually appealing, in English, all that kind of stuff.”

The website, put together on a MacBook from his bedroom within days, gives an overview of the number of cases, deaths and recoveries within each country. 

A colour code keeps things simple to read, while a fact file on the virus drawn from official sources offers people information about how infections occur and a run through of how people can protect themselves.

The live tracker was built from Schiffmann’s coding expertise developed over the past decade “from watching YouTube videos” and searching for tips online wherever he got stuck. “I didn’t go to any expensive bootcamp or take classes at college or anything.”

The code allows the website to scrape data from reputable sources around the world, such as the World Health Organisation or the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention to give visitors accurate updates every minute.

“I literally just sat in my room for like a week or so figuring things out and eventually I pieced it together and made a website that's now huge,” he says. ‘It's been interesting to watch the website traffic grow as the virus spreads to more places.”

The website receives an average of 25m visitors daily, with about half the traffic coming from the US and the rest of it “spread around the entire world”. About 80pc of visitors are on mobile.

It has now become a source of reliable information at a time when fake news and skewed data has proved a challenge online. 

Other trackers have since been developed, including one from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but Schiffmann's site continues to attract epidemiologists in need of rapid clairty. “I get 6,000 emails a day so it's really hard to sort through them,” he says. 

For Schiffmann, who is not interested in monetising his project (a button at the top right-hand corner let’s people buy him a coffee if they wish), the coronavirus crisis calls for greater leadership from politicians spearheading efforts to curb further spread of the virus.  

His mother, who works as a doctor, has seen testing kits run short at her clinic. “If you look at places like South Korea, they have drive through testing and they're able to test like a million a week,” he says. “While the United States it's terrible, we're very unprepared.”  

With school now shut, and preparations for university-entrance exams paused, Schiffmann is prepared to dedicate as much time as possible to his tracker.  

He is acutely aware that a school shutdown in other places has left many students searching for something to do. His message to those who might be inspired by his work is a simple one. 

“There are people 3D-printing ventilators and people like me making tracking websites,” he says. “It's so easy to learn things online if somebody wants to learn.”